Here’s a look at how we made yesterday’s Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit.
- Rabbit stew
- Hardtack leaves (lembas)
Tolkien is very clear about not only what goes into Sam’s rabbit stew but how Sam cooks it. I’ve stuck as close as I can to that recipe.
Lembas presents more of a problem, since magical Elvish bakeries are in short supply these days, but we are helped by Gimli’s observation that lembas is like a delicious version of the Dale-men’s cram. (2.8) Cram is also mentioned in The Hobbit, which tells us: “it is biscuitish, keeps good indefinitely, is supposed to be sustaining, and is certainly not entertaining, being in fact very uninteresting except as a chewing exercise. It was made by the Lake-men for long journeys.” (H13) All of which suggests one thing: hardtack.
Hardtack has been made for centuries as a way of making grain into rations that are dense with nutrition and resistant to spoilage, both qualities that are desirable in food that must sustain travelers on long journeys.
Hardtack is notoriously unpleasant eating. (Soldiers’ ration biscuits in the Great War were essentially hardtack; Gimli’s antipathy to cram probably has more than a little of Tolkien’s own war experiences in it.) The things that make bread appealing to eat—moisture, fat, airiness—are precisely the things that make it susceptible to spoilage, which is the real magic of delicious yet durable lembas. So, since real lembas beyond our capabilities, we have a choice to make: do we make something that tastes good but wouldn’t last, or something that would last but doesn’t taste good?
I’ve come down on the side of durability, but done my best to make our hardtack at least pleasant to the eye, if not so much to the tongue.
The blackberries are our own addition, a little something sweet and simple to end on.
Rabbit is hard to come by in most supermarkets, but specialty butcher shops may carry it. If you can’t find rabbit, this recipe works well with chicken or other small fowl.
- 1 rabbit, skinned and gutted
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 sprigs thyme
- 2 sprigs sage
- For cooking outdoors, lay and light a fire with enough fuel on hand to burn for about an hour. For indoor cooking, use a medium-low burner.
- If your pot is large enough to hold the rabbit whole, you can cook it as it is. If not, cut it into large chunks.
- Place the meat and herbs in a cast iron pot. Add enough water to just cover.
- Simmer for about an hour or until the meat is well cooked, turning the rabbit occasionally.
It’s no lembas, but this hardtack keeps well and will supply a little nutrition on the go. If you want the hardtack to keep for a long time, bake it for several hours and it it dry out for another couple of days before packing away in airtight containers. This recipe is for a small batch, but it can be easily multiplied.
- 1/2 cup / 1 dl whole wheat flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons water
- Preheat oven to 250 F / 120 C
- Mix the flour and salt together
- Add the water and work into the flour until it forms a stiff dough. Add more water if necessary, but be careful not to add to much. The dough should be stiff and dry, but just wet enough to work into a ball.
- Roll the dough out to a thickness of 1/4 inch / 1/2 cm. Cut into leaf shapes by hand or with a cookie cutter. Ball up the remaining dough, roll out again, and cut more leaves. Repeat until the dough is used up.
- Bake for an hour (up to three hours if the hardtack is to be kept long term).
- Cool the leaves on a rack and set in a dry place to dry out further. (The more moisture you get out of them, the better they will keep.)
Blackberries are delicious straight from the hand. When wandering far from home in a strange land, a little taste of familiar fruit can do a homesick Hobbit a world of good.
We know what Sam carried with him for cooking from Tolkien’s description of how he prepared Smeagol’s rabbit offering (4.4):
“He still hopefully carried some of his gear in his pack: a small tinder-box, two small shallow pans, the smaller fitting into the larger; inside them a wooden spoon, a short two-pronged fork and some skewers were stowed; and hidden at the bottom of the pack in a flat wooden box a dwindling treasure, some salt. He thought for a bit, while he took out his knife, cleaned and whetted it, and began to dress the rabbits.”
Apart from Sam’s gear, though, the rest of the setting is simple to the extreme: a basic fire to cook on, with Frodo and Sam eating straight out of the cooking pans, sharing the fork and wooden spoon.
We decided therefore to cook and take photos outdoors. The same cast iron spider that we used as a multipurpose cooking vessel for Food in the Wild makes a reappearance. For consistency, I picked the same wooden spoon that appeared in the other Hobbit dinners (Long-Expected Party and Farewell Feast in Bag End). There’s also a two-pronged wooden fork and a skewer-like metal poker for cooking, and an old metal measuring cup has pretensions of mughood.
Erik’s decision to make his lembas versions quite small meant that we could use strawberry leaves from our yard as wrappings for the photoshoot—rather a brilliant move, so thank you for both ideas, Erik.
Lastly, to add some vitamins to our meal, we cheated. Frodo and Sam might otherwise have been able to gather some wild bramble berries for dessert in Ithilien, but they were there at the wrong time of the year for berries. Since we were poised to cheat already, we hand-waved the inauthenticity aside and went with store-bought blackberries wrapped in unbleached fabric.
If I were to do this dinner setup again, I’d try to get a diffuser to control the bright sunlight, or pick a cloudier day. Otherwise I’m pretty happy with the results.
Check out the introduction for more!
Images by Eppu and Erik Jensen
Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!